A trip to Hurricane Island, and the town that disappeared

Fri, 03/25/2011 - 7:40pm

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to go to Hurricane Island, Maine, to be part of a team to redevelop the utility infrastructure. Water, water treatment, waste and power had all fallen into disrepair when the island’s last occupants — the outdoor educational organization Outward Bound — left. The island is now being administered by a nonprofit, and several of the board members, remembering us from the renewable energy work for the Fox Island Electric Cooperative on Vinalhaven and North Haven islands, asked us to be on the design team.

The first thing I did was try to find Hurricane Island, as I had never heard of it before. I then remembered I had never heard of Block Island either before my brother and his wife moved there. This time the Internet made the mystery island easier to find, but the only information immediately available concerned the Outward Bound facility that had been there for more than 30 years. It turns out that several Block Islanders had spent time participating in Outward Bound courses on Hurricane Island and they gave me some insight. In retrospect though, none of us knew of the island’s rich and interesting history, which is why I am writing this story.

We left on the fishing boat Equinox with Captain John, loading up engineers, administrators, former Outward Bound staff and my dog. The island is quite close to Vinalhaven, about a 45-minute trip from Rockland. One could not have asked for a nicer March day to make the trip with temperatures in the 30s and a calm sea. The tide was falling as we got there, and we clambered five feet up the dock ladder to the dock. I won’t bore you with the details of our work, but will relay what I saw.

The Hurricane Island Foundation Executive Director John Dietter provided some history telling us that before Outward Bound, a granite quarry and a sardine processing plant existed on the island. I knew many of Maine’s islands had granite quarries; Vinalhaven itself had quite a large and famous one. The first man-made object we saw on shore was a boiler used to create the steam that powered the flywheel used to cut granite. It seemed oddly out of place with a landscape filled with spruce trees and granite rock outcrops. Looking around a little more, I saw large steel rings buried in the ground. Schooners tied up to them often when loading granite for the public work projects in the large cities of New England and the mid-Atlantic states. We hiked to the quarry, which Outward Bound used for its technical climbing course, and the buildings that housed and fed the Outward Bound staff and students. The quarry had become the island’s reservoir. After assessing the infrastructure and devising a basic restoration approach, we had a little time to explore. I came across three-foot granite pillars that were spaced apart about 15 feet, and every 10 yards or so defining a path of some sort. I asked a team member what I was looking at and was told that I was looking at Main Street. I gave her a furrowed-brow look, and asked what the old foundation was just off the path, barely visible. “That’s the church, and if you go over the hill towards the Ice Pond, there’s the dancing hall and bowling alley.” I laughed and hiked a short way to the Ice Pond. I found the old ropes course and some pipe used for fire suppression, but no foundations. Now I knew my leg was being pulled. I have always found Mainers to be exceptionally good storytellers. It was then time to head back to the Equinox.

It is a good thing to know when the tide is rising or falling and by how much, especially in Maine. In the three hours we had been on shore, the tide had dropped seven feet, leaving us to figure out how to get my dog down the 12 feet to the boat deck. Carrying her on my shoulder was not an option as the ladder was icy, with seaweed and barnacles on the lower rungs. Being a resourceful team we devised a type of cradle, and with many hands lowered her down, first to the roof of the boat, then to the gunnels and eventually to the deck. I don’t think she has yet forgiven me.

On the way back to Rockland I had time to look at Vinalhaven and reflect on the differences between it and Block Island. Vinalhaven and North Haven erected three land-based wind turbines, built two schools, (one consuming about a quarter of the energy per square foot of ours), built and expanded a senior assisted housing facility, and installed seven community solar electric/solar hot water projects; one at each of the schools, two at the senior facility, two for the electric cooperative and one at the land conservancy building in the last six years. Each step of these projects had been carefully and skillfully vetted, gaining the support of the vast majority of the islanders. It was not that these projects were without controversy; most all of them had their share of detractors. The consensus was that these projects would benefit the community as a whole and that they should go forward and so they did.

I felt it possible to summarize the differences between the islands after making these observations. At the most fundamental level, Vinalhaven residents with a much more consistent winter/summer population, seemed to be more invested in the community. Block Island, with its highly seasonal population had many who saw the island mainly as an investment. Protecting their investment from all threats, whether real or imagined, took priority. It was hard not to admire Vinalhaven’s people and can-do approach to our changing world, and I wondered if it really was too late for Block Island to see the world in such a light. Learning more of the history of Hurricane Island later made my concerns even stronger.

Back in Rockland, we worked out some design concepts the next day and then Dieter circulated a book, “Hurricane Island, the Town that Disappeared.” The book contained pictures of the island with birth and death records at the back. The pictures told a compelling story of a vibrant community. We had been walking through a town with many houses and perhaps over 1,000 residents. I saw a picture of the granite carving building, with Italian immigrants sitting at the shaping tables. The building was larger than any on Block Island. The town did have a church, a dancing hall, and a bowling alley. It even had a baseball team. All signs of this were gone. I had no idea that any of this existed and if not for the book, would have had no idea of what had been.

This was a “one industry” island, and its community disappeared when granite was replaced by concrete. It provides a cautionary tale for islands that adhere to one industry and are slow to adapt to the future.

I believe I’ll be going back and forth a bit to Hurricane Island and I hope to update you with how we bring this time capsule into the future. It turns out that Hurricane Island’s people literally left overnight and I’ll explain why another time.